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Fasten your seatbelts

I’m not a good flier. I wouldn’t say I’m afraid of it, nor do I actively avoid it, but it’s far from an enjoyable experience. I tend to spend the first 90 seconds holding my breath – I think I read somewhere that you’re most likely to crash during or shortly after take-off – and I prepare to take the brace position at the first sign of turbulence.

Just last week, 20 minutes into an early morning trip to Amsterdam, my heart rate reached a ridiculously high level when an increasingly loud beep beeeeeeeep beeeeeeeeeeeeep interrupted the otherwise peaceful flight. “No, this can’t be it! I’m too young to die! But what else could this noise be if not to warn the pilot of imminent engine failure?” It was a passenger’s mobile alarm. But it definitely could have been more serious.

When this “near-death experience” happened, I consoled myself with the fact that I was flying British Airways, and not some tinpot carrier I had chosen to get the cheapest deal possible!  I was in safe hands. Thankfully, I took that flight the day before the news of BA’s maintenance error hit the headlines.

Doors on both engines of the British Airways plane were left unlatched, leading to an emergency landing not long after take-off (wouldn’t be surprised if it was during the first 90 seconds!)

Thankfully, no one was seriously injured, but after ensuring the safety of its crew and passengers (and assessing liability) BA’s next priority would have been preventing this little mishap turning into a PR disaster.

They brought out the big guns with the CEO Keith Williams responding appropriately, while taking the opportunity to remind us of BA’s good points: "We commend the professionalism of the flight crew for the safe landing of the plane and the cabin crew and pilots for its safe evacuation.” Is this really enough to put our minds (especially those of the nervy fliers) at rest?

A study, which compared the financial markets reaction to crash and non-crash airlines, found that “the crash airline suffers significant financial losses from a crash, which appear to be related to consumer switching [to another airline, or flying less].” I know this emergency landing wasn’t a “crash” but does BA need to be worried about losing customers to a competitor deemed to be safer, or at least more diligent at ground maintenance?

Some airlines have managed the unthinkable and turned a PR crisis into an opportunity. US Airways improved its brand perception in 2009 when the pilot carefully landed the troubled aircraft on the Hudson River, with no life-loss. He was branded “amazing”, “heroic” and “masterful” however, according to CoreBrand, the way he gracefully received the praise gave credit for the miracle landing and evacuation to the entire flight crew had a knock-on effect on the airline’s reputation.

It’ll be interesting to see whether this incident has any longer term effects on the British Airways brand. My feeling is that it won’t. It is at times like this that all the hard work done in the past on positioning British Airways as a responsible trusted entity pays off.  Having fought hard to establish itself over many years as a reliable standard bearer that prides itself on its service (‘to fly, to serve’ being the much talked about recent slogan), getting over these types of one off incidents is an easier job for its PR team than if this had happened to many of its rivals.  Like any good pilot I’m sure the brand will weather the potential turbulence and land safely on the other side.


Karla Winch, Account Director, Brands2Life